Hog farms as an energy source?

The StarNewsOnline.com (Wilmington, NC) reports that there may be some value to the hog farm waste that can cause significant environmental damage, as I described in a previous post (Why We Should Eat Less Pork). Bottom line: Hog manure can be used to produce methane, but the waste products don’t go away.

Link: Hog farms seen as energy source | StarNewsOnline.com | Star-News | Wilmington, NC

Using available technology, North Carolina’s hog farms could produce enough electricity to serve more than 90,000 homes, according to a new study commissioned by the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Extrapolating from data about the state’s hog industry – the second largest in the nation, after Iowa – and from experience with waste-to-energy experiments, engineers at LaCapra Associates estimated that 93 megawatts of power could reasonably be generated on the state’s swine farms.

The issue is important to eastern North Carolina, which is home to more than 6 million hogs and the vast majority of the state’s large hog farms. Because of concerns over the effect of hog waste on the region’s water resources, lawmakers halted the opening of new hog farms. Under a legal agreement, the state government and the state’s largest pork producers have spent millions seeking a cost-effective solution for hog waste to replace the open-air lagoon systems now in use.

That legal agreement, and the new attention of the utilities commission and the state legislature, might provide the impetus to bring the study’s estimates closer to reality, said Molly Diggins, director of the state branch of the Sierra Club.

Serious engineering and policy challenges remain, said Leonard Bull, an N.C. State University scientist and deputy director of State’s animal waste research center.

"There are two or three technologies which show promise," Bull said. "But the issues about connecting to the electrical grid are difficult. Becoming a power producer is a slow and laborious process."

PG&E to let customers gauge, offset emissions

Measurement trumps ignorance.

Link: MercuryNews.com | 12/15/2006 | PG&E to let customers gauge, offset emissions

Pacific Gas & Electric won approval Thursday [12/14/2006] to launch a program that will tell customers — house by house and business by business — how much carbon dioxide they emit every month, and then allow them to offset it to become “carbon neutral.” The program, called ClimateSmart, will begin in March or April. Participation is voluntary and will cost $4.31 a month for a typical household.

“We are convinced that climate change is a serious issue and we want to give our customers the opportunity to play a role in dealing with it,” said Wendy Pulling, director of environmental policy for PG&E. The program was approved Thursday 5-0 by the California Public Utilities Commission, a state agency whose members are appointed by the governor.

Under the PG&E program, customers who sign up will be given a monthly statement showing how many tons of carbon dioxide they were responsible for based on their use of electricity and natural gas. The burning of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, which traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere. An average home generates about 5.3 tons of carbon dioxide a year, PG&E says, about the same as driving a Honda Civic for 15,000 miles.

Green People

Joel Makower‘s 1992 book, The E-Factor, described

…a small band of American Airline flight attendants that started their own effort to recycle cans, bottles, and other waste from flights. They gradually enlisted all 17,000 or so of their fellow flight attendants, eventually creating a systemwide recycling effort without much help from top management. Over time, the flight attendants were able to amass $200,000 from selling recycled materials, and used the money to purchase a plot of land near the Nashville airport and donate it to The Nature Conservancy to protect an endangered coneflower.

via: Joel Makower: Two Steps Forward: Airlines’ High-Flying Waste

Why We Should Eat Less Pork

Rolling Stone magazine’s Jeff Tietz describes how America’s top pork producer churns out a sea of waste that has destroyed rivers, killed millions of fish and generated one of the largest fines in EPA history. Excerpts below. Warning: do not read any further if you eat pork or have a weak stomach.

Link: Rolling Stone : Pork’s Dirty Secret: The nation’s top hog producer is also one of America’s worst polluters

Smithfield Foods, the largest and most profitable pork processor in the world, killed 27 million hogs last year…. The logistical challenge of processing that many pigs each year is roughly equivalent to butchering and boxing the entire human populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Memphis, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston, Denver, Louisville, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Las Vegas, Portland, Oklahoma City and Tucson.

The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield’s total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year.

…many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield’s business model.

The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That’s a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.

They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population. Accordingly, factory pigs are infused with a huge range of antibiotics and vaccines, and are doused with insecticides.

Thus factory-farm pigs remain in a state of dying until they’re slaughtered. When a pig nearly ready to be slaughtered grows ill, workers sometimes shoot it up with as many drugs as necessary to get it to the slaughterhouse under its own power. As long as the pig remains ambulatory, it can be legally killed and sold as meat.

Millions of factory-farm hogs — one study puts it at ten percent — die before they make it to the killing floor. Some are taken to rendering plants, where they are propelled through meat grinders and then fed cannibalistically back to other living hogs. Others are dumped into big open pits called "dead holes," or left in the dumpsters for so long that they swell and explode. The borders of hog farms are littered with dead pigs in all stages of decomposition, including thousands of bleached pig bones. Locals like to say that the bears and buzzards of eastern North Carolina are unusually lazy and fat.

Unsurprisingly, prolonged exposure to hog-factory stench makes the smell extremely hard to get off. Hog factory workers stink up every store they walk into. I run into a few local guys who had made the mistake of accepting jobs in hog houses, and they tell me that you just have to wait the smell out: You’ll eventually grow new hair and skin. If you work in a Smithfield hog house for a year and then quit, you might stink for the next three months.

Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one. Its lagoons are historically prone to failure. In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act — the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield’s annual sales.

A river that receives a lot of waste from an industrial hog farm begins to die quickly. Toxins and microbes can kill plants and animals outright; the waste itself consumes available oxygen and suffocates fish and aquatic animals; and the nutrients in the pig shit produce algal blooms that also deoxygenate the water.

The biggest spill in the history of corporate hog farming happened in 1995. The dike of a 120,000-square-foot lagoon owned by a Smithfield competitor ruptured, releasing 25.8 million gallons of effluvium into the headwaters of the New River in North Carolina. It was the biggest environmental spill in United States history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. The sludge was so toxic it burned your skin if you touched it, and so dense it took almost two months to make its way sixteen miles downstream to the ocean. From the headwaters to the sea, every creature living in the river was killed. Fish died by the millions.

Spills aren’t the worst thing that can happen to toxic pig waste lying exposed in fields and lagoons. Hurricanes are worse. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000,000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers. Many of the pig-shit lagoons of eastern North Carolina were several feet underwater.

From a waste-disposal perspective, Hurricane Floyd was the best thing that had ever happened to corporate hog farming in North Carolina. Smithfield currently has tens of thousands of gallons of open-air waste awaiting more Floyds.

North Carolina, where pigs now outnumber people, has passed a moratorium on new hog operations and ordered Smithfield to fund research into alternative waste-disposal technologies. South Carolina, having taken a good look at its neighbor’s coastal plain, has pronounced the company unwelcome in the state. The federal government and several states have challenged some of Smithfield’s recent acquisition deals and, in a few instances, have forced the company to agree to modify its waste-lagoon systems.

There simply is no regulatory solution to the millions of tons of searingly fetid, toxic effluvium that industrial hog farms discharge and aerosolize on a daily basis. Smithfield alone has sixteen operations in twelve states. Fixing the problem completely would bankrupt the company. According to Dr. Michael Mallin, a marine scientist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who has researched the effects of corporate farming on water quality, the volumes of concentrated pig waste produced by industrial hog farms are plainly not containable in small areas. The land, he says, "just can’t absorb everything that comes out of the barns." From the moment that Smithfield attained its current size, its waste-disposal problem became conventionally insoluble.

Studies have shown that lagoons emit hundreds of different volatile gases into the atmosphere, including ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. A single lagoon releases many millions of bacteria into the air per day, some resistant to human antibiotics. Hog farms in North Carolina also emit some 300 tons of nitrogen into the air every day as ammonia gas, much of which falls back to earth and deprives lakes and streams of oxygen, stimulating algal blooms and killing fish.

via John at Foggy Bottom Farms

Instituto Thomas Jefferson

Atanu Dey visited the Mexico City campus of Instituto Thomas Jefferson recently (excerpts below). He was impressed. I am impressed with what he found. From what Atanu writes and my exposure at the University of Virginia to Jefferson’s thoughts on education, I think Mr. Jefferson would be pleased with this institution.

Link: Atanu Dey on India’s Development » Instituto Thomas Jefferson

What sets ITJ apart is not the fine 18th century hacienda in which the Mexico City campus is housed. What distinguishes ITJ is one word: values. The values of the founders form the foundation upon which the school is built and it is no surprise to learn that the school has been recently judged to be the best school in Latin America.

The school’s attitude of dynamism reflects the essential aspect of the world we live in, a world of growth, of advancement, of constant striving towards goals and ideals.

Here is just an aspect of that attitude. There is a department in the school which focuses on attempting to predict what the world is going to be like 15 years hence. It is what I call a “look ahead” – try to discern what is the world going to be like by the time the kids entering the school today graduate. By doing so, you can better prepare the students to meet the challenges of the world to be.

The “look ahead” program is called “Vision 2020”. ITJ uses in-house staff as well as experts around the world to make educated guesses about the skills that will be valuable in the future. Thus, for instance, the kids learn how to effectively use video conferencing; or the use of the best technology tools. They learn not just the subject matter but also the use of the most effective tools. Heard of “mental maps”? They use it at ITJ at the elementary level.

…they teach values. And how to be a good, effective, thinking person. They have a program which teaches how to effectively express your emotions. Subject matter is well and good but you need to teach kids interpersonal skills. They teach the kids to “STOP, THINK, and DO.”

The atmosphere in the school was one of happiness. Whenever I entered a classroom, I was greeted by eager faces. They were confident and did not shrink from expressing themselves. They posed for the pictures and told me excitedly about what they were doing in class.

Creativity matters to ITJ. They have a strong theatre program and every year they stage a Broadway play. I saw some pictures of the plays they have staged. Professional quality.

They do things in style. For example, in KG, while learning about, say, marsupials, the kids will then take a virtual tour of a zoo in NY or in Australia through video conferencing and interact with people in remote locations.

[School founder] Ricardo Carvajal was especially proud of their science curriculum. The school has taken the top three places in the National Contest for Chemistry. It has featured in the top 10 in the last nine years. They have video conferencing with NASA astronauts. ITJ is definitely the sort of place (unlike some school districts in the US) where evolution is taught. ITJ seeks out the best. It has relationships with Harvard University, and joint ventures with universities in Florida and California.

Conservation Saves Energy

The Christian Science Monitor provides some great advice for saving energy in your home.

Link: Surprise: Not-so-glamorous conservation works best | csmonitor.com

When high school science teacher Ray Janke bought a home in Chicopee, Mass., he decided to see how much he could save on his electric bill.

He exchanged incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, put switches and surge protectors on his electronic equipment to reduce the "phantom load" – the trickle consumption even when electronic equipment is off – and bought energy-efficient appliances.

Two things happened: He saw a two-thirds reduction in his electric bill, and he found himself under audit by Mass Electric. The company thought he’d tampered with his meter. "They couldn’t believe I was using so little," he says.

Mr. Janke had hit on what experts say is perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective place to reduce one’s energy consumption: home.

Moving closer to public transportation or riding a bike instead of driving is not an option for many, but changing incandescent bulbs for fluorescent and buying more efficient appliances is not only possible, it quickly pays for itself with savings.

The No. 1 contributor of carbon emissions worldwide is the US. It is responsible for 22 percent of the world’s annual emissions. In second place, China produces 17 percent, while Russia at No. 3, contributes 6 percent. By another measure, of the top five producers (responsible for more than half of global emissions), the US is by far the highest per capita contributor – 20 metric tons per person per year compared with China’s 3.6 metric tons. (Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.)

The best place to start is to reduce electricity consumption. Power plants lose two-thirds of their energy in waste heat. For every one unit of electricity your space heater consumes, for example, two units have been lost at the power plant. This inefficiency is reflected in electricity’s cost to consumers. Even though more American homes use more natural gas than anything else, homeowners spend more than twice as much on electricity – $100 billion annually compared with $47 billion. Not only is electricity more expensive, but because of its inherent inefficiency, it contributes 21 percent more CO2 annually than does transportation.

Cutting back on electricity used for lighting (9 percent of residential usage nationwide) presents the quickest savings-to-effort ratio. The EPA estimates that changing only 25 percent of your home’s bulbs can cut a lighting bill in half. Incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of their energy as heat, and compact fluorescents, which can be up to five times more efficient, last years longer as well.

Second stop, kitchen appliances, which consume 27 percent of the average US household’s electricity. More than half of that goes to your refrigerator. So "any fridge over 10 years old is worth changing," says Henry Gifford, a New York-based mechanical system designer. "And no, don’t put it in the basement and plug it in and leave it there." Get rid of it.

For the reasons mentioned above, using electricity for water and space heating, which accounts for 19 percent of home electrical use nationwide, should be avoided. "One of the worst things you can do with electricity is use it to make heat," says Alexander MacFarlane, director of green building technical services at the New York-based Community Environmental Center, a consulting company in energy efficiency.

Ideally, all appliances should be exchanged for those bearing the EPA’s Energy Star seal. Plugging electronics into power strips, which can then be turned off, will decrease "phantom loads" and further increase savings. (Transformers inside electrical equipment convert your wall socket’s alternating current to the direct current electrical devices use to function. Even in "off" position, they often continue to draw small amounts of electricity.)

via The Energy Blog

Movie Recommendation: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonI had heard that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is a great movie, but I had never seen it because I assumed it was out-of-date and probably very superficial (the first half was).

We watched it last night on TCM and saw a well-directed (the great Frank Capra) and well-acted film — James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, and Edward Arnold give excellent performances. I was surprised at the light it shined on dirty politics — how a powerful political machine can use media and innuendo to affect public opinion. Lots of lessons here that should never be forgotten.